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A Brief History of the Environmental Justice Paradigm

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

Ecological Disruption Conflict: Socio-environmental conflict arising as power is exercised by companies, states and other actors in environmental disputes.

The rise of the Environmental Justice Movement in the US is often traced to the early 1980s in Northern Carolina, where civil rights activists united against the dumping of toxic waste and other pollutants in Black communities without compensation. Consequently, the environmental justice movement represents a multitude of struggles arising from inequitable exposure to environmental harm. Today, in response to such injustices, the movement encompasses slogans and concepts of environmental racism, climate justice, ecological debt, food sovereignty and so on.

At the same time the rise of Indigenous environmental justice movements in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s in the U.S. challenged the predominantly white American environmental movements which conceptualised the environment as mere wilderness.

In contrast, Indigenous environmental justice movements conceptualised the environment as a site of everyday life and relied on an indigenous conceptualization of the relationship between the human and nonhuman going beyond the human-earth dichotomy

Different groups “frame” the question of climate justice in different ways. In the ‘grassroots’ frames of climate justice developed over decades of social movement mobilisation the scientific framing of climate change which dominates European climate movements is challenged. These European climate movements reduce climate change to an apolitical issue with universal consequences. The effects of climate change are not felt equally at all, and those who conceptualise climate justice with the ‘grassroots’ frame emphasise the inequalities.

Transnational indigenous people’s climate justice movements engage with framings of climate justice primarily as a response to market-based and state-led ‘green economy’ strategies to climate change mitigation. For these movements, conceptualizations of climate justice go beyond mere climate change mitigation, requiring urgent transformative change. In rooting for food sovereignty, land and resource rights, right to self-determination and autonomy, and respect for their relationship with land and territories, their demands are embedded in a human rights framework in contrast to these market-based technocratic approaches.

For a more in-depth look at this topic, check out our sources:

  • Claeys, Priscilla, and Deborah Delgado Pugley. 2017. “Peasant and Indigenous Transnational Social Movements Engaging with Climate Justice.” Canadian Journal of Development Studies / Revue Canadienne d’études Du Développement 38 (3): 325–40.

  • Martinez-Alier, Joan, Leah Temper, Daniela Del Bene & Arnim Scheidel. 2016. “Is There a Global Environmental Justice Movement?” The Journal of Peasant Studies 43(3): 731-755, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2016.1141198

  • Schlosberg, David, and Lisette B. Collins. 2014. “From Environmental to Climate Justice: Climate Change and the Discourse of Environmental Justice.” WIREs Climate Change 5 (3): 359–74.

  • Sovacool, Benjamin K. and Alexander Dunlap. 2022. “Anarchy, War, or Revolt? Radical perspectives for Climate Protection, Insurgency and Civil Disobedience in a Low-Carbon Era.” Energy Research & Social Science 86: 1-17.

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